Circassian Activists in Turkey Receive Boost from Erdogan
Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 14 Issue: 11
On May 21, Circassians worldwide marked the 149th anniversary of the end of the Russo-Caucasian war. In the North Caucasus, the largest republic with a Circassian population, Kabardino-Balkaria, held multiple events marking the anniversary. Hundreds of young people staged a procession in the republic’s capital, Nalchik, and an estimated 3,000 people participated in a rally in the central part of the city. The leadership of the republic was also present at the rally, underlying the political importance of the event. The president of the International Circassian Association, Khauti Sokhrokov, stated at the rally that the Russian-Caucasian war changed the fate of the Circassian people. “Only an impartial assessment of this war will give [us] the right to look into each other’s eyes calmly and not leave this problem to the next generations,” Sokhrokov said (https://www.kavkaz-uzel.ru/articles/224505/). The procession of Circassian youth in Nalchik featured quite frank slogans, such as “We remember the 1763–1864 Circassian genocide” (https://kavpolit.com/21-maya-den-pamyati-i-skorbi-cherkesov-traurnoe-shestvie-v-nalchike-31-foto/).
Khauti Sokhrokov is closely connected to the government of Kabardino-Balkaria and is ostensibly loyal to Moscow, but even with this background his statements resemble those of independent Circassian activists. Even officials in the republic cannot nowadays simply ignore the issue of recognizing the Russian Empire’s “genocide” of the Circassians in the 19th century. At the same time, the authorities try to appropriate public discussion on the Circassians’ past travails. The rally in Nalchik was officially endorsed and likely organized in part by the republican government. A few speakers called on the Circassians not to dwell on past events, but work instead to “develop Kabardino-Balkaria.” The regional authorities in Krasnodar region devised their own way of alleviating the Circassians’ grievances. On May 21, the Day of Memory and Grief marked by the Circassians, authorities in Krasnodar planned to invite Circassian activists to the sites where the Russian army celebrated its victory over the Circassians in 1864, followed by an excursion to the 2014 Olympic sites in Sochi. In this way, the authorities in Krasnodar would add an insult to injury (https://aheku.org/page-id-3557.html). Many Circassians have been opposed to the Olympics in Sochi, calling it the “land of genocide” and demanding that Russia recognize the tragic events, which happened there as “genocide”.
Circassian claims received an unexpected boost from Turkey during the 149th anniversary of the war’s end. Selahattin Demirta?, the chairman of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party in Turkey, spoke in favor of Turkey recognizing the Circassian genocide, which gave an important international boost to Circassian claims. “Turkey traditionally does not welcome topics related to genocide and pogroms,” Demirta? said. “This morning, Circassian associations held protest actions in front of the Russian Embassy. In our turn, we intend to propose that parliament recognize the Circassian genocide and promote publicity for this issue in the international political arena” (https://aheku.org/page-id-3560.html). Moreover, on May 18, the Circassian diaspora in Istanbul unveiled a monument dedicated to the genocide and exile of the Circassians. The organizers of the event invited Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an to attend, and even though the prime minister did not find time to visit the site, he sent a sympathetic letter stating: “I reckon that such events possess special importance for both, receiving international acclaim and strengthening our unity and brotherhood that is held together by honoring the memory of those who died in exile” (https://aheku.org/page-id-3559.html).
The “genocide” issue is especially sensitive for Turkey, because of Armenians’ claims that Turkey should recognize the atrocities committed in 1915 as “genocide” by the Ottoman Empire. The Russian Federation officially recognized the Armenian “genocide” in 1995 (https://ria.ru/spravka/20100305/212370444.html), so if Turkey were to recognize the Circassian “genocide” by the Russian Empire in 19th century, it would be only a belated tit-for-tat move. Georgia is thus far the only country in the world to have officially recognized the Circassian “genocide”: it did so in 2011. Turkey may want to avoid negative repercussions, as it has relatively warm relations with Russia. At the same time, Turkey is certainly trying to establish itself as a regional power that has its own views on the countries that border it. This means that Ankara will have to make some decisions that strengthen its identity and show its leadership role. Therefore, the issue of recognizing the Circassian “genocide” appears to be growing as part of the widening public debate inside Turkey.
Russian-Turkish relations soured over the past several years in connection to the opposing views of the crisis in Syria. The civil war in Syria is also related to the Circassian question, since thousands of ethnic Circassians reside in this war-torn country and some of them have fled to Turkey. Turkey has the largest Circassian diaspora in the world, numbering up to 5 million people, so the Turkish authorities are understandably attentive to what the Circassians say about the situation in the North Caucasus. The upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi raises the stakes of the Circassian question. The significance of any political decision regarding recognition of the Circassian genocide would be magnified because of the world’s attention to the region.
Both the Circassians in the North Caucasus who are loyal to Moscow and independent Circassian activists expect Russian authorities to somehow act upon the Circassian question and stop avoiding it, particularly as the 2014 Olympics in Sochi make it virtually unavoidable. Moscow’s inaction on the issue, it seems, no longer satisfies anyone among the Circassians. And with growing awareness in Turkey, it seems that the issue is not losing momentum, but forcing Moscow further and further into a state of genocide denial.